After Ben Williamson wrapped up his celebrated tenure at Gerard’s Bistro, he set out with plans to create something he could call his own. Of all his culinary inspirations, woodfired cuisine stood out as the type of fare that he most wanted to tackle. It’s a purer form of cooking – no gas stoves, no electrical outlets and no shortcuts. This particular pyromaniacal passion was shared by Tyron Simon – one of the brains behind top-tier eateries sAme sAme and Hôntô, and a kindred spirit when it comes to loving flame-licked fare. Over a series of discussions, this meeting of minds eventuated in a partnership. Together, along with Frank Li and Bianca Marchi, the team would open a new restaurant that based its entire menu around wood and fire, eschewing the technical trappings of a conventional kitchen and the restrictive confines of genre. When it came to finding a location for this bold concept, Tyron had the perfect spot in mind. A recent meeting had taken him to Agnes Street on the fringe of Fortitude Valley – a street he’d never walked down before – where a warehouse space (formerly a bacon smokehouse) caught Ty’s eye. The facade held a certain character that was hard to place – it didn’t feel like it belonged in Brisbane. It was singular and, more importantly it was vacant and perfect for the group’s shared vision. It was at this point at the concept was crystallised and Agnes was born.
Once the site was secured, the Agnes team set about fashioning the insides into something truly memorable. In terms of aesthetics, Agnes has been consciously designed to suit the striking bones of the warehouse’s existing interior. A muted dark grey is utilised across all three floors, from the pendant lights to the lengthy communal tables and cushioned banquettes. Once the lights are dimmed at dinner, the neutral tones help to enhance the crackling flame of the kitchen and the plates of food that emerge from it. Speaking of the kitchen, it is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the venue. Ben took control of the design here, ensuring it had everything it needed to operate on woodfire alone. It boasts two heat-brick charcoal pits – one dedicated to seafood and starters, another reserved for meat – as well as an oven used for baking and keeping prepped loaves warm for service. Nearly everything in the open-plan kitchen is custom, from the blacksmith-made wrought-iron hanging racks to the pots, which were designed by the team to suit the specific style of cooking employed. For example, one large iron pot is fashioned with a smaller cake tin-like interior to allow smoke to circulate around clusters of clams, and a large sifter-like device is employed to give squid and cuttlefish the kiss of fire.
When Agnes was operating as a pop-up bakery, guests lined up to grab treats from what is now the wine bar. Now in restaurant form, those doors are closed in favour of a new understated entrance a few paces up the hill. Upon entering the moody confines of Agnes’ high-ceilinged dining space (which at full flight will eventually seat 66), patrons have the option of making straight for their seat or detouring down to the 24-seater wine bar or up to the rooftop terrace (which is currently closed due to capacity restrictions, but expect it to open once the warmer months arrive). The wine bar boasts a gleaming back bar alongside a cosy seating area perfect for intimate rendezvous. An empty glass-encased room in the centre will soon house an on-site distillery, which will be used to craft small batches of whisky, gin and vermouth. Finally, also situated upstairs is a 22-seater private dining space – elegantly adorned and boasting an unimpeded view of the fire-lit kitchen below.
While operating a restaurant without modern bells and whistles might strike some as lunacy, for Ben Williamson and his culinary team there is a method to the madness. Stripping back the style of cooking to its base elements means that there is nothing to hide behind except flavour, and Ben is showcasing some adroit adaptability with Agnes’ seasonal menu that includes discernible elements of French, Japanese and Middle Eastern cuisine. It all starts with the fire – various hardwoods are fed to the flames, turning them into charcoal, over which water is boiled and produce is cooked. In order to subtly alter the profile of various ingredients, the likes of ironbark, apple wood, cherry wood and olive wood are commonly used. The dining experience starts at the bar, where snacks such as malted sourdough with smoked cultured butter (a nod to Agnes’ pre-launch life as a bakery), beef tartare with smoked chestnut and mushrooms, scarlet prawn doughnuts, lamb ribs lathered in sesame whey caramel, and grilled parson’s nose with garlic cream act as enlivening tasters ahead of the main affair – or a delightful grazing experience in their own right.
These snacks are also available on the main menu, but by this stage we’re looking beyond towards Agnes’ bevy of starters, mains and desserts. Once again, all items here (vegetables and proteins) have been licked by fire or caressed by smoke. Smaller plates such as clams doused in onion butter, roasted carrots with smoked labne, woodfired cabbage with rye koji butter sauce and octopus with black lemon orbit around the larger culinary bodies. We’re talking the likes of red-throat emperor with soubise sauce and scampi caviar, smoked lamb neck with ancho mole, aged duck with cumquats and bread sauce, 70-day aged heritage pork with apple sauce, and two aged steaks (a 220-day aged pasture-fed Angus sirloin and a 260-day aged wagyu). Ending things on a sweet note is Agnes’ four-strong list of desserts, which offers memorable finishers such as blood-orange sorbet with goat’s yoghurt and olive-oil cake, strawberry mille feuille, smoked potato ice-cream with brown butter and cocoa crunch, and Basque cheesecake. Ben is a firm believer in using the best produce available at the moment and, as such, isn’t beholden to sweeping seasonal changes. Expect small tweaks shifting the menu often!
Much like its sibling venues, Agnes’ drinks list is considered and deep. Group sommelier Lilly Heenan and beverage manager Cody Kings have assembled a formidable list of beverages to ponder. Like the food, the restaurant’s various cocktails are influenced by smoke and woodfired flavours. Various cocktail ingredients see their time in the kitchen, from the smoked butter-infused Woodford Reserve bourbon in the Way Ahead Of You, the smoked date in the Comanche Uprising and the grilled guava found in the That Time in Juárez. A trio of signature gin and tonics are also notable, as they too boast left-field ingredients such as housemade pear-and-ricotta soda. When it comes to the wine list, care has been taken to respond appropriately to the food. The list as a whole embraces diversity, with varieties from renowned European regions sharing space with more avant-garde Australian drops. That being said, there is a slight lean towards light reds, which have been selected specifically to complement the fare – think bright, terroir-expressive and slightly acidic drops that cut through the richness of the smoky flavours in play.
Agnes is now open to the public. Bookings are already stretching into October, so if you’d like to snag a table you’d best be quick! Details can be found in the Stumble Guide.